President Clinton and Republican leaders, in an elaborately staged effort to dispel the partisan acrimony that has soured previous sessions of Congress, met Tuesday and declared their determination to work on balancing the federal budget and other issues of common concern.
The entire event was so tightly scripted that even the setting - the President’s Room on the Senate side of the Capitol - carefully was chosen as a metaphor for compromise.
Yet even as the nation’s political leaders tried to set a dramatically different tone in public, both sides have been working behind the scenes to scuttle each other’s top priorities.
Clinton is bitterly opposed to the GOP-backed constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget, for example, and Clinton’s call for campaign finance reform is falling on deaf GOP ears. The Senate has been riven by partisan disputes over hearings into campaign funding irregularities at the Democratic National Committee. Even on education, Republicans say nice things about the issue but are savage about some of the particulars of Clinton’s proposals.
But during Tuesday’s meeting, Clinton and congressional leaders focused on several areas in which they believe they can reach consensus early this year: cutting taxes, providing incentives for employers to hire welfare recipients, cracking down on juvenile crime, giving a boost to education and helping the ailing city government of Washington, D.C. They also reiterated their mutual commitment to balancing the budget.
The occasion for Tuesday’s bipartisan lovefest was Clinton’s journey to Capitol Hill for a meeting with top House and Senate leaders of both parties. More remarkable than the vague agreements they reached was the discipline participants showed in restraining their longstanding habits of partisan bickering.
“The atmosphere was the best I’ve seen in some time,” gushed Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. “We’re trying to find a way to take the minimum number of potshots at each other.”
Clinton was “delighted with the tone and with the free exchange and with the candor,” said White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
The paeans to bipartisanship might sound like mere political platitudes, but they marked a huge departure from Republicans’ strategy and modus operandi during most of the last Congress.
After winning control of Congress in 1994, Republicans sometimes seemed more interested in drawing clear lines between the parties than they did in producing laws. And leaders such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and his top lieutenant, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, often criticized Clinton in the harshest personal terms.
Now, both Republicans and Clinton seem to have concluded that it is in their political interest to tone down the rhetoric and accomplish something legislatively.
“We’re interested in changing law,” says Assistant Senate Majority Leader Don Nickles, R-Okla. “We’re not looking for campaign issues.”
The idea of inviting Clinton to Capitol Hill was mostly the idea of Lott, who has worked hard to close deals with Clinton to wrack up legislative accomplishments.
The meeting was held in an especially ornate room in the Capitol where presidents used to come to sign legislation at the end of a session of Congress. A congressional historian was brought in to explain the significance of the room - something not lost on Clinton.
“I think it was rather unique that in this case it was used by the president to launch an effort, working with Congress, that hopefully will result in a lot of bills to sign down the road, which we will do with great fanfare,” McCurry said.
Even within areas of consensus, there are key points of roiling partisan controversy. Clinton and the GOP are squarely at odds over a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, and any consensus on education will have to overcome deep Republican opposition to key elements of Clinton’s agenda, such as his call for standardized tests to ensure academic progress on fundamentals like reading.
Conspicuously absent from the list of consensus items endorsed by the party leaders was a top Clinton administration priority - campaign finance reform. “It’s clear that there is a lot of work that lies ahead” on that issue, said McCurry.